“I don’t get it,” my aunt commented on an album of pictures we had uploaded to Facebook. My mom chimed in, “I don’t either!”
To add to the confusion, I didn’t get what there was to get. My fiancee, Monica, and I had road-tripped to the tiny desert town of Marfa in far West Texas. Those were the pictures. Simple as that.
“Tiny desert town … in far West Texas.” Now that I see it in writing, the idea of driving 6 1/2 hours to spend the weekend in desolate Texas does seem deserving of an explanation.
Especially one that ends with me losing my shorts.
Where to begin … well, it’s Donald Judd’s fault.
A canvas in the desert
In 1971, Donald Judd started buying spaces in Marfa, including “16 decaying buildings, an entire decommissioned Army base and three ranches spread across 40,000 acres,” according to NPR. I know what you’re thinking — this guy must be Texan — but nope, Judd was a renowned minimalist artist living in Manhattan who moved to Marfa in search for a better (i.e. bigger) canvas for his art.
To this day, that art is scattered across the town — paintings, photography, huge sculptures — and his legacy made Marfa a magnet for other artists and free-thinkers who continued the trend. Over time, a steady flow of tourists also developed, urban folks like us, itching to know what’s so special about the place.
The photographer for our engagement shoot was also curious, so we decided to pull a Judd and make Marfa our canvas. I wasn’t sure what to expect from our love-struck poses and long-held kisses by dilapidated buildings and a shiny Prada store in the desert, but after seeing a teaser from the shoot, my doubts are gone.
Perhaps you, too, are thinking, “I don’t get it,” but hold on — that might just be the point of Marfa.
Dodging the map
I felt pretty confident about this trip. Travel destinations can be daunting, but Marfa seemed so within reach. When I saw the tiny grid of streets on the map, I felt a completionist’s urge to drive around every single block. Because I could.
But maps can be deceiving, especially in Marfa.
We started by tracing the outer edge of town and would work our way towards the middle.
About three minutes into the journey, roads on the map began to disappear into dead-ends on the ground. Straight lines warped into a curvy path that took us around deep pit holes and tall bumps. By the time we made it around, 25 minutes had passed, and I decided one round was good enough.
Admittedly, our guide was Apple Maps — meaning perfect navigation should not be expected — but Google Maps also let us down on the trip, again and again. And so did the other giants of POI-mapping, like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Foursquare. “Open” might actually mean “closed forever;” and “closed” might mean “just kidding.” Marfa somehow resisted the collective pull of online ubiquity.
Perhaps this was just a small-town thing, but something about Marfa felt especially disorienting, almost like someone was playing a trick on us. You start to look at everything and wonder if it was intended as art, or even a joke, and what it might mean. For example, 30 miles outside of a town, a cubical Prada store stands isolated in the desert — shoes and purses on display, security cameras pointed outward, and no one inside. It’s a perfect replica and never opens. I stared at the store and wondered: What’s the difference to someone like me, who can’t afford the goods inside anyways — for sale or not? Was the artist making some bold stance on consumerism, pulling thousands of tourists to the desert to stare at a cube and take photos, like the barn in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise,” where tourists gather to take photos every day, and no one knows what’s special about it, but everyone goes, and so it becomes special?
Perhaps the trick was for us to stop and look where we usually wouldn’t look. We did a lot of that.
The Marfa lights are another attraction where tourists gather to gawk at something because it’s the thing to do — this time, to stare at mysterious lights that trickle down mountainsides on the horizon each night. No one knows what causes the phenomenon, but skeptics say they’re simply car headlights. I think they’re probably right — but at one moment, I wondered if the entire viewing station was a work of art or a prank that locals had installed to gather us tourists together like zoo animals. Then they run through the mountains with flashlights to tug on our short attentions like cats chasing lasers.
On another occasion, we drove to a spot on the official city map labeled as the “Wrong Store” — like the naive tourists we were — and of course didn’t see the store anywhere in sight upon arrival. In other words, we had gone to the wrong store. Surprisingly, Google and Apple Maps got this one right and sent us a few blocks to the south to the right location for the Wrong Store. It’s hard to say which map was more right in this case. But when we got there, it was closed.
Thinking beyond place
We were getting good at finding closed places. But where was the action? For once in my life, the internet didn’t seem to have the answers.
Locals came to the rescue, reminding me that most places are more about the people anyway and less about the place. We sat outside a coffee shop, and a guy who goes by JB walked up and emptied his bottle of water into a bowl for Gordo, our dog. JB said he did digital art and some of his stuff was on display at the Marfa Book Company. His family has lived in Marfa since the 1940s, and, he said, “a quarter of the town” was related to him. He even claimed to know Donald Judd in the ’70s, whom he described as “reserved and self-deprecating.” Judd was the one who inspired JB to become an artist after giving him a set of pencils and an eraser in third or fourth grade. When people ask JB if he still has them, he responds, “No, I used them!”
Now JB is the campaign manager for a guy who’s running for the “Justice of Peace” position in the city. He says most people in Marfa are friendly and helpful — “except the jerks, but they usually stay at home, so you won’t see them anyways.”
A wiry guy in a black tank top and beard came out the coffee shop and slapped JB’s hand with a strong handshake. “I’m running for mayor, man!”
JB responded, “I’ll keep you in mind. My rates are good, and I don’t steal from the campaign fund.” With a laugh, the guy walked to his white utility van, which had a big yellow smiley face on the back.
Nice people are awesome. The good vibes spread, and after one day in Marfa, my small-town roots were already resurfacing into friendly waves at everyone we saw.
After talking to more people, there was one website that everyone kept telling us to check out: Marfa List. Upon first glance, it looks like the Web 1.0 days of internet forums, a simple message board for people to post and discuss various topics. A “Lost & Found” board includes topics ranging from “lost painting” to “found keys” and even “free goat milk.” The “What’s Cooking” board is apparently where local businesses post their hours of operation for the next few days, which I suspected is their sneaky way of staying off the grid of Yelp and the rest of them. There’s also an entire message board devoted to ride-hailing, and another for “immediate” needs, like “Dinosaurs need HELP!” — which turned out to be about a slow internet connection in need of repair. Someone promptly responded with the numbers for AT&T’s “repair folks” for Marfa. Everything about the site felt as welcoming and oddly disorienting as Marfa itself.
How I lost my shorts
At 1:59 a.m. of our last night in town, I had something to share on Marfa List: “LOST: Cut-off shorts (+ID) at Godbold Feed Co.” I failed to mention that the keys for our Airbnb rental were also lost, and so were my credit cards and an unknown amount of cash.
We had packed the bulk of our wardrobe for the photoshoot that day. We started after 7 p.m. and scurried from one spot to the next to take advantage of the crisp evening light. I changed outfits three times and felt deeply frustrated that humans still haven’t designed tangle-free clothes hangers. Gordo was also being a pain and walking all over the clothes, and, just to keep things extra stressful, I accidentally dropped my fiancee’s diamond earring on the shoulder of the road, where it camouflaged into thousands of other (less valuable) shiny rocks of gravel.
I found the earring (unbelievably), but when we returned to the Airbnb rental around midnight, I couldn’t find my shorts (believably?). Usually, I’m not one to throw a worry-fit and assume something’s lost forever when I can’t find it, but I felt utterly hopeless as we retraced our steps around Marfa, especially since the Airbnb host was out of town and we were locked out of our house.
Around 1 a.m., we gave up on the search and started Googling “how to pick a lock.” Nothing worked, and we finally resorted to crashing at our photographer’s house. Of course, that’s when the Airbnb host responded to let us know that her roommate was in town and had opened the door for us. A little late on the timing, but we were finally saved.
Stressful, yes, but was it worth it?
So far, no one has found my shorts, but the folks of Marfa List have been friendly in their replies. One person asked, “So, was this a sans-pants engagement shoot…? No judgment. Just wondering … Also, I hope you find your shorts.”
In the end, part of me feels satisfied knowing I’ve left behind something as bewildering on the surface as Marfa itself.